I am currently a student and have been using Esri software pretty much exclusively for my GIS needs. I occasionally use R for raster creation, especially as outputs of statistical models - which I usually bring back into Arc to work with.

I will be graduating in a year or so and may not continue to have access to ArcMap.

I am wondering what programs are recommended in the place of Arc. I currently use R for most of my raster work, but find that it can not always handle large rasters.

Of the other open source GIS software programs, is there one that has the most similarity to Arc (in capabilities and UI), or one (or some) that is easiest to learn coming from that background?

Is it common to use multiple programs for different functions, or do most people have only one or two programs they use?


4 Answers 4


Disclaimer: Developer on the project, and hardcore advocate, but it is pretty awesome sooo... :)

A lot of Arc* users tend to fit in well with QGIS. It provides the same kind of features, if not more in some areas. Provides good printing options. Can open pretty much any format under the sun. QGIS also has a progressing framework that can interface with GRASS and SAGA GIS, and a whole host of others, which are great toolkits for raster work. R can also be interfaced using the processing framework.

QGIS supports Python as its main language for extensions, scripts, macros, etc. Can connect to MS SQL, Oracle, PostGIS, Spatialite, W*S, etc.

Of course this is also to say that you shouldn't just learn QGIS and stop. Learn to use as many tools as you can. Knowing a wide range of tools will help you be more flexible in the times of need. Knowing only QGIS * is just as bad as only knowing Arc*. However using something like QGIS will help you branch out into the other software packages like GRASS and SAGA which I think you will like for doing the raster stuff that you need.

  • 2
    We were an ESRI (ArcGIS) shop but Quantum GIS (QGIS 2.0+) with Oracle Spatial direct connection replaces ArcGIS entirely. With reduced budgets QGIS has saved many $$$$ in licensing costs.
    – Mapperz
    Sep 20, 2013 at 1:21
  • 3
    In a similar vein to Mapperz, I learnt GIS on ArcInfo 6.x and migrated through to ArcGIS 10.1. But when I went freelance, I couldn't afford ESRI licences (or even Oracle ones!). I now find there is nothing I used to do with Arc that I can't do with QGIS (including GRASS) plus Python and a few other packages (e.g. PostGIS, GeoServer, GDAL, Shapely) and NumPy plus SciPy together with GDAl greatly enhance Python's raster handling capability (though I'm not an R user so I can't compare). Sep 20, 2013 at 6:42


These tools can do command line, batch processing jobs and are often faster than ArcGIS. Useful for converting raster (GDAL) or vector (OGR) formats.




Python can do a lot of stuff, even without using arcpy.

Boundless, formerly OpenGeo, have a library for doign stuff with Python: http://geoscript.org/ (though I can't vouch for it, I haven't used it).

You can also use big python libraries like NumPy and SciPy to wrangle big datasets. You can then use multi-processing to multi-thread it.

I use Python currently to download data, unzip it, and feed it into our corporate databases. It is the glue that ties things together!


Give Whitebox Geospaital Analysis Systems (http://www.uoguelph.ca/~hydrogeo/Whitebox/) a try. It's a cross-platform, open-source GIS with a user friendly interface and a great deal of analytical power. I am the lead developer of the project.

As for your question about the use of multiple programs, yes, the advanced GIS tech will use the right tool for the job at hand. It's best to have familiarity with a range of tools and to be able to pick and choose based on the task that you're faced with.

  • I notice that it is under the department heading of Hydrogeomatics - is there an emphasis oh hydrology with this program? (I happen to be doing my masters in Hydrology)
    – Sarah
    Sep 20, 2013 at 1:15
  • @Sarah, I would say that Whitebox is being developed with a broad GIS user audience in mind. It just so happens that the specific research interest of each of the scientists in the Centre for Hydrogeomatics align with hydrology. As such Whitebox has good capabilities in this area. For example, there are many algorithm for flow path modelling available (D8, D-infinity, FD8, Rho8), there are abundant tools for watershed mapping and stream network analysis, and there is work underway to incorporate a distributed hydrological model.
    – user21951
    Sep 20, 2013 at 12:51

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